By Jesse Walters
“You’re not smart enough to not do the things you think of…” those were the concerned words of my good friend and former AMA superbike racer JJ Roetlin, when I told him I wanted to start touring on an 11 horsepower vintage Honda. His words echoed in my head as I kick started the 1974 Honda XL125 and left on a 120-mile trip to Ely, MN.
Let me backup and explain my motivation or at least attempt to justify my eccentric riding tendencies. With all the fancy two wheeled rocket ships on the market today, I’ve grown a little bored with just how perfect most street/dual sport
bikes have become. Don’t get me wrong, I have no intention of selling my modern steeds, but once in a while it’s rewarding to ride something that slows you down and makes you appreciate where bike technology has come from. Much like travel abroad makes you appreciate home, riding an under sprung, under-powered relic; makes you appreciate fuel injection, and ABS.
As a six-foot nine-inch tall rider, almost every bike seems a little cramped, but riding a ’74 Honda XL 125 any serious distance was going to be a real test of man and machine. Before I tackle longer trips, I figured a 120-mile shake down run was in order. Just so happened some Canadian riders were hosting the 2014 Icebreaker ride in downtown Ely the same weekend. Perfect!
Fuel range with the XL’s shot glass-sized tank was going to be an issue, especially on the remote US1 highway. Breakdowns could also be problematic on such remote roads. However, with the XL’s 40mph top speed, the minimal traffic on US1 was ideal. With this in mind, I packed spare parts and plenty of extra fuel, then hit the road. Once underway, I was shocked to find how quickly I clicked through the gears. Within a St. Paul city block, I was running in top gear at 35mph. Oh boy, maybe JJ was right…
As the miles clicked by, I learned how to ride the bike. Since the rear suspension was completely bottomed out at all times, even the slightest bumps could be bone jarring. I had to anticipate frost heaves and highway ruts like motocross racers picking a line through the whoops! With such a large speed differential between myself and unsuspecting motorists, I kept an eye on my rear view mirrors to make sure I didn’t have anyone behind me on the crest of blind hills. Surprisingly, I only had two cars pass on the entire route from Finland to Ely.
Slowly but surely the ride became more and more enjoyable as I gained confidence in the 40 year old machine. I learned to anticipate the slightest highway grade like a long haul trucker driving over a mountain pass. Quick, efficient shifts, timed just right to minimize momentum loss. In flight school, they teach energy management for high performance aircraft, potential versus kinetic energy; altitude versus airspeed. Trade in one for the other, and leave the prop and throttle controls alone. Ironically, the same holds true on a low performance motorcycle, use the hills to your advantage, build speed downhill to prolong the inevitable downshifts as you climb up the other side.
About 30 minutes into the ride, something particular happened. The same road I’ve ridden countless times had magically sprouted new trees, forest roads, houses, campgrounds and rivers. Either all of those landmarks were created overnight, or the slower speed of the XL let me see them for the first time. I guess we’ll never know for sure. I do know for certainty, the relaxed pace of the XL let me take in more of the surroundings and less focus on suicidal moose that might stumble onto the roadway.
What did I learn? Averaging almost 110 mpg, fuel consumption wasn’t an issue, the spare Rotopax tank wasn’t needed and my range on the little XL rivaled my large adventure bike. Gearing and suspension were an issue however. For future trips, I’m going to gear the XL a little taller for highway riding as well as adding some cheater springs to the forks and possibly Hagon shocks to the rear. Best advice I could give to fellow small bike riders? Check your ego at the door. I passed lawn mowers, wood splitters and blenders that boasted more power than my steed. But I guarantee, I was having more fun!
Since the ride to Ely, I’ve been busy dreaming other riding ideas I’m not smart enough not to do on such a little bike. Maybe a trip around Lake Superior? Or the Trans Minnesota Adventure Trail perhaps? Sturgis? Who knows, but just dreaming about the next ride is half the fun!